Published by EH.Net (June 2014)

Giorgio Riello, Cotton: The Fabric that Made the Modern World.  New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2013.  xxviii + 407 pp.  $35 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-107-00022-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Eric Jones, La Trobe University.

Reviewing this book is a tall order because it is strikingly broad in coverage and even bolder in the sweep of its claims, geographical, chronological and methodological.  The volume is also full of contemporary illustrations of textiles, which, when few physical items have survived, is a practical alternative.  I have never seen so many pictures in a scholarly text on commodity history, used here to support Giorgio Riello’s insistence that economic historians are too narrow in the evidence and approach they use – more of which anon.  It is true that cotton has been the subject of innumerable industrial histories that do not begin to match this author’s reach back to A.D. 1000 or his delving into the detail of textile history in Asia, though his claims for primacy may still be thought a mite overdrawn.  Riello, who is Professor of Global History at the University of Warwick, wishes to answer two main questions: why cotton came to outclass other fibers used for clothing and why northwest Europe, more particularly northwest England, became the improbable location from which manufactured cotton cloth flooded the world market.  He does better, in my view, in tackling the former question than the latter.  Much is to be learned, nevertheless, from both halves, for this is a rich and elaborate work.

Picking out any single section is difficult because so many topics, themes, clever distinctions and academic debates are introduced in a largely successful crusade to demonstrate that cotton is a good lens for viewing global history (though by dealing primarily with India and England, the book is really international history, give or take the late arrival of the nation state).  I will mention only two outstanding treatments of the “why cotton” issue.  The first is the extended demonstration that developments in the printing and design of fabrics should take their place alongside innovations in spinning and weaving.  The second is some ingenious calculating of ghost acreages to show how unreasonably expensive in land or labor it would have been for England to have produced at home enough of any fiber to satisfy its burgeoning industrial sector.  The point is emphasized that the novelty of European cotton production was to delink manufacturing geographically from the source of its raw material.

There is no need to quarrel with the breadth of the geography or chronology other than to say that the choice does rather depend on what one is trying to explain.  Economic historians may, however, bridle at the remark that they are just as interested in measuring outcomes as in explaining them and attribute “all the merit (or blame)” parsimoniously, to one or at most a handful of variables.  This, says Riello, is “a rather narrow way of accruing alternative explanations.”  Insofar as we are guilty as charged, this misconceives the economic method.  Economic historians of my acquaintance are concerned with magnitudes (how many, how much, how often, etc., as Clapham said) but they have an end in view that does not necessarily blind them to the complexity of the world: they simply wish to identify as much order in it as possible.  Admittedly some overdo the approach, bruising the tender tissues of history in the iron grip of neoclassical theory.  Price theory will take you 60 percent of the way, quipped Lance Davis, but he meant only 60 percent.  As soon as sociological and other variables are introduced, the reproducible and the definite deliquesce into less tractable realism.  Maximizing these things simultaneously proves too hard for any of us.  Introducing great breadth, as Riello does, creates engaging narratives but is a different exercise.  Perhaps ironically, Cotton turns out to be far more analytical than his methodological statements might lead one to expect.

Beyond this, Riello joins the coterie of academics determined to cut the role in world history of Europe, and especially of England, down in size.  That the West borrowed ideas about design from India, whence it imported cotton textiles before producing them at home, is familiar enough.  Nevertheless, some credit might be given to the European shipping that did uniquely take trade into another hemisphere.  Riello asserts that England was extreme rather than exceptional, which depends on what these terms mean and as it stands is surely misleading.  He says that whereas the old classic on cotton by Wadsworth and Mann aimed to show how Lancashire changed the world, he wants to show how the world changed Lancashire.  He wishes explicitly to side-line technological history, saying for instance that even if factories did emerge in England suddenly they were only epiphenomena.  They were symptoms of something bigger.  But factories, and a fortiori textile machinery, indeed the entire Lancastrian industrial revolution, were what broke the mold of world history.  Ideas and materials had filtered from the East but that is not the point, even without any allowance for independent discoveries.  The point is the response.  However early in time developments in making cotton had occurred in Asia, and whatever transmission to Europe there was, the technological response in England was utterly novel and utterly formative of the modern world.  The cant term would be “game-changer.”

Riello’s central purpose is to demonstrate how a specific good changed the way people lived, their tastes and physical conditions, and to do this in a way that dissociates him from the supposed limitations of economic history.  The formation of tastes is admittedly something that economic historians do not pretend to understand but I do not see that this book endogenizes it in a rigorous way.  Exposing the passionate heart of Riello’s approach and its apparent defects is of course the first task when reviewing.  It may, however, distract attention from the scope of his achievements.  Given the depth of scholarship and unusual range, a catalogue of contents ought not to be an appendix – but a full account of all the subsidiary episodes and puzzles discussed would be beyond the permissible length of this review.  On its own terms Cotton’s history is immensely informed and informative.

Eric Jones, Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University, and former Professor, Melbourne Business School, is the author of Locating the Industrial Revolution: Inducement and Response (World Scientific, 2010), The Fabric of Society and How It Creates Wealth (Arley Hall Press, 2013, with Charles Foster), and Revealed Biodiversity: An Economic History of the Human Impact (World Scientific, 2014).

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